This field of medicine requires much more physiological and pathophysiological knowledge than most people give it credit for. Psychiatric illness DO have physical manifestations of symptoms; in fact those symptoms help form the main criteria for differential diagnoses. For example, key physical symptoms of depression, besides having a low mood for more than two weeks (yes, two weeks is all it takes to be classified as 'depressed'), include fatigue, change in appetite, unexplained aches/pains, changes in menstrual cycle if you're a female, altered bowel habits, abnormal sleep, etc. Aside from this, studies suggest that psychiatric illnesses put you at higher risk for physical conditions including heart disease, osteoarthritis, etc. (the list really does go on)
Although some mental health conditions, like cognitive impairments, still do not have very effective treatment options; most psychiatric medications work very well, and are necessary for treating the patient. The stigma surrounding them by the public causes a huge problem for doctors. Many patients are reluctant to comply with medications because they are not as widely accepted as the ones for non-mental health conditions. A psychiatrist holds a huge responsibility for patient education. It can be tough to teach your patients about their medication, when many of them refuse to belief there is anything wrong with them (this is also because of stigma).
Contrary to my previous beliefs, psychiatrists DO NOT sit around talking about feelings all day. The stereotypical image of someone lying down on a couch talking about their thoughts/feelings while the doctor holds up ink blots, is done more in 'cognitive behavioural therapy.' While this is a vital healthcare service, it's not really what a psychiatrist does. Taking a psychiatric history is just like taking a regular, structured medical history; except you have to ask further questions about their personal history (their relationships, professional life, significant life events, etc), forensic history, substance misuse history (if applicable), and childhood/developmental history. Taking a psychiatric history for a new patient usually takes at least an hour.
The interesting thing about about treating a psychiatric patient is that the best guidelines you have for making them healthy is their personality before the symptoms started (this is called 'pre-morbid personality'). This can be difficult to establish, and can often be an ambiguous goal for a doctor to reach. Of course, there is structure/protocol for each illness, but each patient will be unique. This is a challenge because personalities constantly evolve, healthy or not, and the human mind is perpetual.
On top of this, whether mental or physical, a serious illness usually significally impacts a person's personality.
Most psychiatric conditions, while being very treatable, will affect the patient will struggle with for their whole life. This leaves the psychiatrist with a large portion of the responsibility for the patient's quality of life and well-being; this can be vey rewarding and challenging. The state of a person's mind is a perpetual thing, choosing the right medication is not enough.
Before I had done this rotation, I was quite sure that this was a field I was not interested in. I still don't know if it is something I would pursue, but I'm definitely more open-minded to it now!
PS: It has also taught me some valuable life lessons; most of the patients I met were just ordinary people who were pushed a little too far by the unfortunate combination/sequence of circumstances in their life. Even the ones who have committed crimes or were capable of doing awful things.. It could happen to anyone, and just because I have been lucky enough to not experience the things those people have, does not mean I am a better person for not behaving the same way as them.